To some, this presidential election cycle felt like it would never end. The 24-hour news coverage, the back-and-forth political banter on social media, the water-cooler conversations at work have left more than half of Americans in a perpetual fight-or-flight state – in other words, stressed! It’s been dubbed “Election Stress Disorder,” and at the height of it all – Election Day – two of our behavioral health experts are providing ways to cope.

Whitney Toothman, a licensed professional counselor and director of social services  at Parkridge Valley Hospital in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Dr. Shawn Daugherty, director of clinical services and case management at The Medical Center of Aurora, swung by to give us their take on “Election Stress Disorder” and how to overcome your fears now that we’re at the finish line of the presidential race.

What is Election Stress Disorder?

Dr. Daugherty: Anytime you have an election cycle like we’re having right now, where both candidates’ unfavorability ratings are very high, you’re going to have people choosing to vote because they feel it’s their civic duty and they want a certain set of ideas to be pushed forward. But they may not truly believe the individual they’re voting for has the personal integrity or capacity to represent them or our country adequately. The conflict between feeling it’s your civic duty, and, at the same time, not necessarily believing in the person you’re voting for, causes anxiety and stress. In this election, people are experiencing that stress.

How long has Election Stress Disorder been recognized medically?

Dr. Daugherty: Disorders are not things. They’re not tables or chairs – they’re descriptions of collections of symptoms. So, I’m not familiar with it being considered an actual disorder in any DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). I think it’s a term that’s being coined at this point because of the political intensity and focus that’s going on right now. But as far as being an actual medical diagnosis, I’m not aware of that being the case.

How many people have been affected by Election Stress Disorder during this election period?

Whitney Toothman: It’s estimated roughly 52 percent of all Americans have been affected by “Election Stress Disorder” during this election cycle. This is equal between men and women and between both political parties.

Dr. Daugherty: It’s fair to say the unfavorability ratings that I’ve seen for both presidential candidates, within the 50 to 60 percent range, is incredibly high. So, that means a substantial number of people that are still choosing to vote are very likely to feel a certain amount of anxiety about putting forth their vote for someone they may not truly believe in. That causes stress. It’s like anything in life when your head and heart are not lined up with your behavior; there’s going to be a certain level of discomfort.

What type of symptoms would someone experience with Election Stress Disorder?

Dr. Daugherty: The symptoms would be similar to anything where someone is experiencing considerable stress or anxiety: muscle tension, which will result in headaches, aches and pains; disturbed or decreased sleep; fatigue, irritability, gastrointestinal distress like heartburn; increased heart rate…that sort of thing. The body’s typical response to something that is persistently stressful.

Whitney Toothman: I would also add heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, loss of appetite, or a sinking or doomed feeling.

Tips to cope with Election Stress Disorder?  

Dr. Daugherty:

  • Limit your exposure to the intense negativity. Listen to election coverage for a period of time, but if it’s causing you distress, self-regulate and take yourself out of that situation.
  • Don’t watch the news in bed. When your mind or your body associates a certain place to feeling very stressed, you’re likely to experience that stress more often.
  • And, for the general American population, reminding yourself that our democracy is strong and there are checks and balances in place to make sure our country continues to thrive, regardless of who ultimately is elected president.

Whitney Toothman:

  • Turn off your television to limit exposure.
  • Reduce your time on social media.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Talk to someone.
  • Get out of the house.

What are some healthy ways to deal with unfavorable election results?

Dr. Daugherty: I would encourage people to stay connected to those who matter to you if the results are not what you want them to be. To be able to talk with friends and loved ones about your concerns, worries, or fears is always a positive thing to do.

Whitney Toothman:

  • Don’t think of the worst possible outcomes.
  • Don’t take the outcome personally.
  • Try to remember that very little will change overnight, and life will go on.
  • Focus on things in your life that you can control.
  • Take action in your community to make a difference like volunteering.
  • It can help with coping and anxiety.
  • Talk to someone about your concerns.

It’s no secret – this election cycle has been a roller coaster of emotions. From highs to lows, tears of joy to sadness, from social media spats to rifts with friends and strangers, it’s been a nerve-wracking ride. But whatever happens on this Election Day, just remember: “Every day the sun comes up no matter what happened the day before.”

Watch Dr. Shawn Daugherty, a licensed clinical psychologist in the state of Colorado, talk about election anxiety on local CBS news in Denver.